Even A Pandemic Couldn’t Stop Police Shootings. Activists Explain Why Abolition Must Be Our Goal.

In the months since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin, the outcry to end police violence and protect Black people has not wavered. Protests have grown in intensity in cities like Portland and Chicago, and The New York Times has called it the largest social movement in the country’s history.

But, while momentum has felt like — and largely is — progress in working toward concrete reform, police violence continues to plague the country. In the past two weeks alone, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Dijon Kizee and Daniel Prude were killed by police in Los Angeles and Rochester, NY, respectively. (Prude was killed in March, though footage of his death only just gained public attention.)

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Despite the growing movement to defund the police, the continuance of police violence makes it clear that in order to effectively combat it, abolition might be the only solution. A recent study conducted by the ACLU revealed that the number of fatal police shootings in the U.S. has remained as high in the first half of 2020 as it has been for the last five years. This is particularly surprising due to the fact that the pandemic has meant that more people than usual have been staying home and socially distancing. However, Leila Raven, an abolitionist organizer with Hacking//Hustling and co-creator of #8toAbolition, thinks that the pandemic might actually be one of the causes for continued high rates of police shootings.

“Black and brown communities have always been policed for occupying public spaces,” Raven said. “Black communities — especially people who work in the street economies — have experienced increased pandemic-related policing where people are targeted, again, simply for being outside. Instead of ensuring that people had access to the resources needed to safely participate in social distancing, there has been increased surveillance, harassment, and criminalization of people experiencing homelessness and nontraditional workers that rely on the street economies to survive.”

People experiencing homelessness are not only particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the Center for Disease Control, but are also at higher risk for experiencing police violence. More than half of homeless families in America are Black as of January, and the high rate of evictions during the pandemic means that soon more people will be at risk for homelessness, and, subsequently, increased surveillance and violence from the police.

“Violence is endemic to policing in the U.S., regardless of societal conditions,” Paige Fernandez, Policing Policy Advisor and co-author of the ACLU report, told Refinery29. “Police violence and killings will not slow down even when our whole world has been flipped on its head. Police violence is not situational — police will continue to kill people as long as they maintain the roles, responsibilities, power and funding that they do today.”

Fernandez also explained the innate racial targeting in police shootings. According to the ACLU report, 24 percent of fatal police shootings are of Black people, who only account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, approximately 46 percent of fatal police shootings kill white people, who account for roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population.

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Protestors who are calling to defund or abolish the police use statistics like those to justify their solution for ending institutional racism within policing. But not everyone participating in current protests has the same end goal when it comes to the police. While some see defunding the police as synonymous with abolition, others see it as a way to give the money to other social services like housing or education, all while maintaining a smaller police force.

And then other protestors are even using the language of the police — "arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor" — as a means to seek redress. The disparate demands of protestors makes it difficult to ascertain what “success” will look like, or what it will mean if some of the less radical goals are achieved, while others are put on hold.

“There are so many decentralized Black Lives Matter protests that aren’t connected to community demands at all,” Deana Ayers, a Political Education Coordinator and abolitionist told Refinery29. “I think that the people who are still protesting for convictions of killer cops, for body cameras for every officer, for making choke holds illegal, and for community control over the police, aren’t going to get what they want. These reforms are unlikely to result in actual change, and what does change will not be long-lasting.”

Ayers raises an important question: Is the goal of a protest to change the system, or force people to imagine a world outside of it? Many abolitionist organizers, who are fighting to abolish prisons and the police, would argue for the latter. And as police violence has not decreased despite the many reforms introduced in the last five years, more and more people in America are beginning to agree. 

“Protests are rooted in the Black radical tradition and the collective struggle for freedom, but I dont think protests are the only thing that get us to our goal,” Jessica Marie Shotwell, a graduate student at the University of Maryland and an organizer for BYPD100, told Refinery29. “Protesting is part of a larger organizing strategy that’s intertwined with building relationships in our communities, identifying social issues, and creating a system of mutual aid because we can’t depend on the state for resources in any way. I think it’s a bit limiting to measure the “success” of a movement by the impact of a protest.”

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Months of protests in America have brought on many important social changes aside from the record number of people in the streets, such as increased mutual aid donations to bail funds, community funds, and individuals in need. Despite these important steps in the right direction, for many Black organizers, this progress can feel like too little too late, especially as the state continues to kill Black people at the same rate it has in the past half a decade.

Clarissa Brooks, an organizer, journalist, and cultural worker, said the recent shooting of Jacob Blake was enraging and exhausting. “I’m so tired of seeing Black people being killed by the police, and I’m tired of every non-Black person who has to see the video of a murder as a wake-up call that the police cannot be reformed,” they said. “Every murder makes me more committed to this work, but it also tears me apart that after so many years and decades and centuries of violence against Black people, there are still people who refuse to understand the truth of policing.”

No matter how monumental a task it may be, Black organizers are still committed to fighting for a better world. “Despite how depressing waking up to the news of another Black person being murdered by the police is, after it happens all we can do is learn from it and allow ourselves to be radicalized,” said Ayers. “I have faith that in five years, we won’t be having these same conversations about whether the police can be reformed, because we will be well on the path to abolition.”

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